The Employment Appeals Tribunal has ruled that former Olympic track sprinter Jess Varnish can appeal a decision made in January this year which determined that she had not been an employee of British Cycling or the funding body, UK Sport.
The 29-year-old had been seeking to establish her employment status ahead of filing an unfair dismissal claim after she was dropped from the Olympic podium programme in early 2016, losing her funding.
Her allegations of bullying and discrimination against Shane Sutton led to the then British Cycling technical director resigning his position in April of that year, although he insisted that the decision to end her participation in the programme had been due to her performances over the previous three years.
Varnish, who remains co-holder with Victoria Pendleton of the world record in the team sprint – set in the qualifying round at the London 2012 Olympic Games before the pair were relegated in the semi-finals after an illegal changeover – had just missed out on qualifying with Katy Marchant for Rio 2016.
An employment tribunal earlier this year ruled that the funding that elite athletes receive from UK Sport was comparable to grants received by students and that she could not be considered an employee, and therefore had no grounds to claim unfair dismissal.
Today’s decision paves the way for an appeal hearing that could overturn that decision or order the case to be reheard.
Varnish, who was heavily pregnant at the time of January’s hearing with her first child – her partner is the former BMX world champion, Liam Phillips – was supported in the case by former British Cycling doctor Richard Freeman, currently the subject of a medical tribunal in which he has raised allegations of bullying against Sutton, which the Australian denies.
In a witness statement provided on behalf of Varnish, Freeman said that he had refused to provide a medical report that the former technical director had requested in support of his decision to exclude her from the Olympic programme,
In a statement after today’s decision, Varnish’s solicitor, Simon Fenton of Constantine Law, said: “This is a small, but important, step in holding British Cycling to account over its treatment of her during her cycling career and its abrupt and unfair ending.
“Although this is a small victory, it is significant in light of the revelations from the Freeman case which raised questions of serious bullying at the heart of British Cycling.”
Varnish said: “We could easily have walked away after the original decision went against us, however, I believe we’re doing the right thing by not giving up.
“I want to give athletes an opportunity to hold to account employees of governing bodies, who they interact with on a daily basis, and have significant control over their careers and opportunities.
“I continue to think it’s unfair that athletes still have no structured means to do this, and I hope this appeal will be the first step towards affecting change, and bring about a fairer, more modern high performance system in the UK where athlete welfare is not just a soundbite, but something we all believe in.”
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.